If you don’t know Erin Cressida Wilson by her name, you may know her by her characters. The sweet, hurt, hopeful secretary played by Maggie Gyllenhaal in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary—the one who’s into spanking—she is partly the product of Erin’s imagination. Diane Arbus was, of course, a living person, but the “imaginary portrait” of her displayed in Shainberg’s Fur was also done by Erin. Erin Cressida Wilson is an author, playwright, professor and screenwriter, best known for writing the two films mentioned above. A third film, Chloe, written by Ms. Wilson, directed by Atom Egoyan and produced by Ivan Reitman (of Animal House and Ghostbusters fame) opens in theaters this Friday. Chloe played at the Toronto International Film Festival and has already received a good deal of attention, for its performances especially and also for its subject matter. While both Wilson and director Egoyan have earned serious indie credentials over the years, Chloe is the closest either has come to making a mainstream, popcorn thriller—albeit one with a brain (and an excellent sense of aesthetics). Wilson addressed this herself when I spoke with her on the phone for this interview, saying, “I’m rather independent-film-minded not particularly because I prefer them. If you ask me what my favorite films are they would certainly include what would be considered more highbrow independent films, but they would also include what people might call more lowbrow commercial films. …I really like to unwind with blockbusters frankly. And blockbusters made for women. I’m looking for commercial films that entertain me and are really sexy for women. And I don’t find that many of those. So I was excited at the prospect of trying to [write one].”
If Chloe is commercial it is also unique, and, like all of Wilson’s stories, uniquely unafraid. With movies like Secretary, and books like The Erotica Project, which started as a radio and stage performance, Wilson has proven herself a deft and willing explorer of female sexuality. Both as a writer and a conversationalist she is supportive and open, and steadfast in her encouragement for women seeking out what they really want.
BUST: Your latest screenplay is Chloe, which was produced by Ivan Reitman [the producer and/or director of comedy hits like Ghostbusters and Animal House] and directed by Atom Egoyan [an academy-award nominated director known for making indie films]. You, Atom Egoyan and Ivan Reitman seems like a meeting of movie worlds—can you tell me a little bit about how this collaboration came about?
ERIN CRESSIDA WILSON: Ivan saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival Nathalie, which is the French film [directed by Anne Fontaine that Chloe was based upon] and called me, having seen Secretary, and asked me to adapt it… And then when the script was done, we were talking about directors and Ivan suggested Atom Egoyan. I think for a variety of reasons; one is that there may be a Canadian connection there, but mainly because Atom could handle the delicacy of interactions in this triangle of love and desire.
B: Atom Egoyan has done a few movies about marriage and relationships…
ECW: Yeah, but so has Ivan by the way, if you look at Dave. He is really interested in the psychology of long-term relationships, as am I, as is Atom. So we have that in common, even though we seem like we may be very different. And I met Atom years ago, maybe nine years ago. We talked about what we could do together, and I sent him a book of erotica that I wrote with Lillian Ann Slugocki called The Erotica Project [which he responded quite a bit to]. And then it was absolutely by some weird coincidence that Ivan brought him up years later to direct this film that’s really about erotic storytelling.
B: Chloe is unusual as a character because she really lends herself to “erotic storytelling”—people don’t usually say what they mean, especially about sex, but Chloe speaks in these long, sexy monologues, sort of speaks in erotica in a way…
ECW: Given the chance, I [actually] would have had her talk a lot more dirty, and a lot more. But I pulled it back. Partially in order to universalize it, so that it didn’t get too specific. Because she says in the opening monologue “I’ve always been pretty good with words”—I know what words to select, and I know that certain things can turn some people off and certain things can be the most erotic thing that someone’s ever heard. So, this is true of what I do as well. There are all sorts of things that I could have wanted to write, but it would have hit certain negative buttons on some people. So I kept it simple. I also decided to have her be blunt. When she’s saying these things she’s being pretty blunt, she doesn’t make it flowery. I remember in the French version when the “Nathalie” character spoke both the writing and the actress were extremely sexy. I feel that I went out of my way to some degree, and [actress] Amanda [Seyfriend] seems to have gone out of her way, to not be sexy in those moments, but to just record it. In that way it’s uncomfortable, and strange, and can be sort of oddly arousing in its clinical quality. And I just love the way that Amanda [almost seems like] a little girl trying to say these things. I purposely had Chloe sneeze after a very long, sort of complicated sex monologue. I tried to undercut it with humor. I think sometimes that’s the only way to get away with that stuff.
B: Going back to what you said about speaking bluntly–do you think this movie empowers women because it gives them the license to behave badly, or behave bluntly, which are both things that people often don’t expect of women and of female characters?
ECW: Well yeah, you’ve worded it very well. I agree. I have in the majority of my work over the last many years in film and theater dealt with the complexities of female desire and refused to believe that what we might find sexist or even misogynist in the act of sex or in the thought of sex is always that. I mean Secretary is a perfect example. You take something like spanking a secretary, which seems like the most degrading, sexist thing you could possibly stand, and I kind of feel in my heart that maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s the opposite, maybe that’s what somebody wants, and if they do want that, isn’t it more degrading to tell them that it’s degrading for them to want it? That’s often the way I feel about female sexuality. I mean I remember reading so many times that women are not aroused by images of sex. They want softness, and they want to be softly aroused, seduced, and they’re not visual. And I thought, wow, I mean that’s not true of me, so is there something wrong with me? I don’t think that’s true, all the time. How can you make that generalization about an entire gender?
B: Do you ever get tired of being known as a writer who is willing to “do sex”–talk about sex, explore all these different corners of sexual experience?
ECW: No, I don’t get tired of it at all. I’m so happy that I am. But it is… I guess I have a part of me that continues to be very naïve, because I don’t necessarily think any of this is salacious. And in many ways I don’t see it as sex. I see it as a way to talk about human emotion, and human longing. So that in many ways the sex is the way the story is told, but it’s not what the story is.
B: I loved Secretary, and the way it sort of turned into a beautiful love story, almost a fairytale. One thing I thought was different between Chloe and Secretary was that Secretary in the end showed love as being deeply connected to sex, and Chloe sort of separates the two…
ECW: I think [Chloe] is a love story. For me, the Catherine character is a woman who has found herself many years into a relationship, her husband’s flirting with other women, she is a mother and she has lost her sense of sensuality and youth and vigor, and yet she still loves her husband. And in her losing her sense of self she’s pushed her husband away. So part of the story of Chloe is the husband and wife falling back in love with each other, of a woman allowing herself to be beautiful again, to herself foremost. And that’s allowing herself to fall in love. She allows herself to fall back in love with him and he is allowed to fall back in love with her. They are eroticized by the jealousy that is created by his supposed affairs and her supposed affairs. And they find each other again.
I also think that it’s a love story between the two women, and for me foremost it’s a love story about the individual with her fantasies. And the importance of fantasies. Because Chloe is a fantasy. But she brings [Catherine and her husband] together. Chloe both heals and damages them… and the real villain might be Catherine, for bringing her in in the first place and jeopardizing Chloe as well. Chloe is in the end sacrificed for the family. And I don’t find that particularly politically dicey because I don’t think that it’s real. I think Chloe is a representation of fantasy.
B: As a female screenwriter and someone who is aware of your own work and what it’s going to mean, were you thinking as you were writing Chloe about politics? About how people were going to view this movie, in terms of feminism or in terms of anything else?
ECW: I think that I am naturally simultaneously political and apolitical. I don’t agree that one’s personal choices should be controlled by a political point of view. Nor should one’s artistic choices be controlled. And not to belittle in any way the struggle of any quote-unquote marginal people in our society, that being: women, prostitutes, gay women… I could include straight men at this point. We all have our struggles. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a good time and think deeply, and shallowly, about anything we want in our time. That we can’t do whatever we want as artists. However, I went to Smith College, to a women’s college. And I did question [politics], for sure, in the process [of writing the film]. But I was so in love with writing the relationship between the two women. And so in love with the way those two [actresses] portray characters. I’m really blown away by [Julianne Moore] and by [Amanda Seyfried]. If you watch Julie from moment to moment to moment in that film, she’s so… real. That it’s almost surreal. She allows herself to be so… exposed. And Amanda is a revelation. Just the most stunning, in soul and in acting ability, and of course, let’s not forget that face. And that body. That is not… skinny. She’s a beautiful, voluptuous woman. And that certainly makes me feel better.
B: It seems like one of the strange things about being a screenwriter, and a playwright, is that you have to allow your characters and your story to be put in other people’s hands. Is that ever scary for you? Or is that part of what you enjoy about writing for performance?
ECW: I really enjoy it. I love it. I love the collaboration of writing for performance. I feel very much that when we handed to script to Atom it was not mine anymore, that it was his to make his. And he wanted to [set the movie in] Toronto rather than in San Francisco [as I had written it originally] and I was very happy that he wanted to do that because then it would be his film. Since they call a film the director’s film anyway it’s a good thing that I think that way. It’s interesting, if you read reviews you will often find–and I was talking to another female screenwriter about this the other day–if there’s something wrong with a film, it’s the fault of the script. If there’s something right with the film, it’s “the director did it.” Even if it’s directly out of the script. No one knows really in the end who did what. I mean, you don’t know if something in the script you don’t like was written by the producer! You don’t know if something you like in the script was made up by the actors. Nobody really knows.
B: When you talked earlier about scripting a sneeze, I had almost forgotten that that’s what a screenwriter does. Every little action and reaction is something that you planned ahead, something that you created.
ECW: There’s this really strange idea that a screenwriter writes the dialogue and the story and nothing else. But the truth is that the dialogue in the story is really nothing compared to the moment-to-moment action that I write in each scene. That’s really what screenwriting is in my opinion.
ECW: So this interview is going up on the Bust blog?
B: Yep! You read Bust?
ECW: Yes and no. I don’t really read newspapers and magazines very much at all, which is part of the way I survive working in the entertainment industry, but if I am reading yes I do and I love it. And I think I wrote something for Bust once. I think I had a piece of pretty raunchy erotica with Bust. It was so long ago it was printed. I can’t remember which piece it was, but I was really impressed with them that they wanted to do it.
Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics